WHEN Catriona Stevenson of Clyde Coast Tourism told The National about her #historypolice online forum, I knew that there would be plenty of people who would object to the idea of someone laying down the law as to what is and isn’t historical.

Sure enough there were some detractors who disagreed with her idea, but having seen that Catriona really is trying to get a debate going about Scottish history, I can only encourage her to keep going.

It’s a truism that for much of this nation’s ancient history, everything is up for debate, and I never cease to be amazed at the passion of people who argue their case for some piece of “history” that has not been, and cannot ever be, proven beyond a doubt.

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Written records only really began in Scotland after the end of the first millennium of the Common Era, and a lot of the early records were destroyed or stolen by English invaders such as King Edward Longshanks. That and the Gaelic tradition of oral history passed down from seannachie to seannachie is why so many myths and legends exist about ancient times – indeed, I would venture to say that Scotland probably has more myths and legends per square mile than any country in the world, and isn’t Visit Scotland happy about that?

Think of all the castles with ghosts, the various fairy entities, the glens, seashores and riverbanks with secret places of doom, battlefields in the mist, not to mention whole mountains and hills which were the creation of giants and wizards – allegedly. It’s all hogwash and balderdash, of course, not least because some of our “history” really is manmade myth – need I say the word Ossian? – or legend embellished by propagandists, the greatest of whom by far was Sir Walter Scott. Which is another way of saying that this column may be about to annoy a lot of people as today I am going to look at 10 myths and legends and say exactly what I think of them. I’ll end each section with my verdict on whether the subject is a myth or a legend, the former being a probably false folk tale, and the latter having some basis in truth but definitely accorded some hyperbole. Let’s do this in reverse order …

10. Selkies, Kelpies, Blue Men of the Minch

Selkies are not unique to Scotland as these creatures can be found in the folklore of Ireland and Iceland, too. Seals in the sea, but human onshore, the stories of these shapeshifters go back many centuries, and often involve humans and selkies falling in tragic love. Kelpies are their freshwater version, inhabiting lochs and rivers as horses and stealing away men, women and children – how many young lives have been saved after warnings that the kelpies will capture you at a particularly dangerous stretch of water? The brilliant Kelpies sculptures near Falkirk are a tribute to their enduring part in Scotland’s fairytales.

The Blue Men of the Minch are a variation on the theme, storm kelpies who live between the mainland and the Outer Hebrides and who, so the story goes, will challenge the skipper of a ship to complete their poems and be capsized if he cannot do so. Funnily enough, no one has ever found any remains of a selkie, kelpie or blue man. MYTH

9. Redcaps and Wulvers

A personal favourite, redcaps are a form of goblin who are most commonly “found” in the Scottish Borders where I live. Myths about little old men with prominent teeth, spindly fingers and long hair topped by a red cap have abounded in the Borders and elsewhere, but everyone in olden days knew how to beat off a redcap – you just quoted some holy scripture and he burst into flames on the spot, leaving only a single tooth behind. Fail with the scripture and he would take you off to his lair and stone you to death, dipping his cap in your blood to maintain its colour.

Old Wattie Scott did a good job of convincing everyone that redcaps existed. He quoted John Leyden’s tale of Lord William de Soulis, one of the conspirators against King Robert the Bruce in 1320, who had a devilish familiar called Robin Redcap. Didn’t do de Soulis much good – he confessed his treason and died a miserable death in Dumbarton Castle.

Redcaps appear in the Harry Potter series so of course they’re real ...

Wulvers were Scotland’s werewolves in the shape of a man with a wolf’s head. They were native to Shetland, and said to be immortal. Not surprisingly the verdict is MYTH.

8. Wizards

We’ll deal with just two – Michael Scot or Scott and Thomas the Rhymer.

Scott was a real man of genius who served Popes and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the early 13th century. He was a polymath, a translator, and both an astronomer and astrologer at a time when these disciplines were combined, while his studies of alchemy gained him the reputation of being a wizard. He is supposed to have hailed from Fife, and may have died in either Italy or near Melrose – he is said to have been buried in Melrose Abbey. Either way his reputation was made by another Scott, old Wattie again, who picked up the tale of Michael the Wizard cleaving the Eildon Hills in three and put it in the Lay of the Last Minstrel.

Thomas The Rhymer was also a real man, a 13th-century laird from Earlston in the Scottish Borders. He became known as True Thomas because he could not tell a lie, and this early George Washington also had the gift of prophesy, according to his many fans. He would write mysterious poems that appeared to predict real events, such as the death of King Alexander III. Not in the league of Nostradamus, it should be said, but the Frenchman was never turned into a major literary character as Thomas was, first by Anna Gordon and then by Sir Walter Scott (him again!), all based on a mediaeval ballad which may or may not have been written by Thomas himself and which features the story of Thomas falling in love with the Queen of Elfland. Both Michael and Thomas are easily described – LEGENDS.

7. The Brahan Seer

Having mentioned prophecy let’s move straight to another person who reputedly had that gift, Kenneth Mackenzie, or Coinneach Odhar in his native Gaelic, was a 17th-century Scot supposedly born on the Isle of Lewis who came to live and work at Brahan estate, then owned by the Mackenzies of Seaforth. The trouble with Coinneach was that he kept seeing nasty things such as the Earl of Seaforth having his wicked way with the demoiselles of Paris where he then was, which angered the Countess of Seaforth so much that she allegedly had him boiled to death in a barrel of tar. Obviously he wasn’t much of a prophet if he couldn’t see that coming – and there is absolutely no historical evidence that the Brahan Seer existed until antiquarian and folklorist Alexander Mackenzie’s books about him were published in the latter half of the 19th century. The jury is out on whether he is a MYTH OR LEGEND.

6. Robert the Bruce’s Spider

What’s not to like about the tale of an outlawed hero in hiding from his enemies who becomes a king after seeing a spider in a cave trying six times to climb up and start its web before eventually succeeding on the seventh attempt?

The problem is that there is only one major almost contemporary source for the story of Robert the Bruce, and that is John Barbour who wrote The Brus – and he doesn’t have the spider story. It actually comes from – wait for it – Walter Scott, who borrowed the tale from Hume of Godscroft, the 16th-century chronicler of the Douglas family, the story of the spider having been handed down (or invented) by Bruce’s great allies. There are also five caves claiming to be Bruce’s Cave, with Rathlin Island off Antrim having two of them. Yet because it could have happened and because the man himself is our greatest king, this story can be classed as a LEGEND.

5. The Curse of Scotland

The nine of Diamonds playing card is supposedly the card on which the Duke of Cumberland’s orders to take no prisoners at Culloden were written. Unfortunately for that version, there is a reference to the “Curse” in 1708, some 38 years before the tragic battle. In 1692, Sir John Dalrymple contrived to bring about the Massacre of Glencoe, and the Ist Earl of Stair’s coat of arms had nine diamonds on it, so that may be a better version of the curse story.

There are plenty of other theories, but there is no hard evidence as to why the card gained that epithet – it just did. LEGEND.

4. The Ossian mythology

As this column showed many months ago, the whole mythology of Ossian, Fingal and the supposed ancient Celtic giants of Scotland was completely concocted by the Scottish poet James MacPherson in the mid-18th century, based on Irish folk tales. It remains the world’s greatest literary hoax and we shall dismiss the whole tissue of nonsense as a human-crafted MYTH.

3. The Fish and the Ring

I will be wearing my steel hat in Glasgow after today, because one of the city’s great stories is hereby exposed as sentimental nonsense.

The city’s coat of arms always shows a fish with a ring in its mouth. This is because St Kentigern, otherwise known as Mungo, saved the life of the Queen of Strathclyde (ancient kingdom of the Britons whose capital was Dumbarton) after she lost the ring her husband gave her. Supposedly the queen gave it to a knight who dropped in it the River Clyde where a salmon ate it. When the fish was brought to Kentigern he sliced it open and found the ring in time to stop the king killing his wife. A miracle? No, a MYTH.

2. Saltire

Our precious and lovely blue and white flag comes from our patron Saint Andrew who was crucified on an X-shaped cross at his request, believing he was unworthy to die like Jesus Christ on an upright cross.

Some of Andrew’s bones had allegedly been brought to Scotland to the town that was then named after him, and he had been pretty much recognised as one of Scotland’s main saints by the ninth century, though Columba was recognised as the country’s patron by many people.

On the night before the battle of Athelstaneford in 832 – which itself is more legendary than factual – the Pictish King Angus II had a dream in which he had a vision of St Andrew and was promised triumph in battle.

Supposedly as the Picts and their allies the Scots lined up to fight the Northumbrian Angles under Athelstan, the troops of Angus saw a white Saltire cross shining against the background of a bright blue sky. The king promised that if he won, Andrew would be the new patron saint.

The Saltire became the badge of the people on St Andrew’s Day and the Saltire was taken up as the national flag from 1388. It remains one of the oldest national flags in the world that is still in use today. Since there’s no-one around to dispute the Athelstaneford theory we must call the Saltire story a LEGEND.

1. Nessie

The most famous of all Scottish myths is exactly that. Despite the tale of a “river monster” near Loch Ness featuring in Adomnan’s Life of St Columba, there is no such creature in the loch and probably never has been. It is a pure, exaggerated MYTH.

Get over it ...